- The Washington Times - Friday, January 16, 2009

“Defiance” tells the story of the Bielski Partisans, a ragtag group of Jews committed to disrupting the Nazi Wehrmacht as it rolled through Europe and also maintaining some semblance of normal life as their enemies sought to dehumanize them. Director Ed Zwick describes the dilemma faced by the brothers Bielski as a conflict between “revenge and rescue.”

Unfortunately, writer-director Zwick can’t quite meld those two competing urges into a compelling narrative. The resultant film, although intriguing, is overly long and somewhat disjointed, dragging through an interminable second act that seriously impedes the film’s flow.

Daniel Craig stars as Tuvia Bielski, elder brother to Zus (Liev Schreiber) and Asael (Jamie Bell). As the movie opens, Jews are being pulled from their homes and gunned down by German soldiers - father and mother Bielski already are dead. The brothers reunite and take to the woods; Tuvia is intent on outrunning the Germans and wreaking vengeance on the collaborators who betrayed his family.

A funny thing happens on that road to revenge, however. Despite Zus’ objections, Tuvia takes those who can’t defend themselves under his protection. Faced with the choice of killing Nazis or protecting his people, Tuvia decides to focus on the latter (but only after an ill-fated rendezvous with a squad of Nazis almost costs Asael his life). They will reform their lives in the forest and fight the Nazis with a simple act of defiance: living.


Zus is having none of it. He joins up with an anti-Semitic faction of the Red Army under the assumption that killing Germans is the only way to get live Jews out of the forest and back into their homes. Force must be met with force, as you can only run for your life for so long.

These competing visions of life under Nazi rule could have been fascinating grist with which to work. Unfortunately, Mr. Zwick gets so bogged down in the day-to-day depredations of life in the woods - How will they get food? How will they stay warm in the bitterly cold winter months? What if Tuvia develops an interminable cough and is unable to lead? - that the audience eventually loses interest.

The difficulty of overcoming the soul-crushing cold of the Belarussian woods is, obviously, an important point to make. Despite the harshness of their lives, existence continues. The Nazis can’t break this little group’s spirit: Tuvia’s vision is redeemed! But it’s dull and repetitive; by the time the film’s climax eventually rolls around, the audience has checked out.

It’s a shame because the performances are top-notch. Mr. Schreiber in particular brings a smoldering intensity to the screen as the hotheaded Zus. The on-location shooting is wonderful, lending a realistic pallor to the faces of the clearly frozen actors; makeup might have accounted for some of that paleness, but no makeup artist can make someone’s breath quite that visible.

★★½

TITLE: “Defiance”

CREDITS: Directed by Ed Zwick. Written by Mr. Zwick and Clayton Frohman.

RATING: R (Violence and language)

RUNNING TIME: 137 minutes

WEB SITE: www.defiancemovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS